As soon as I heard about the school shooting in the States on Friday (a colleague at my own school here in Canada told me in the hall at recess as I was running back to my classroom from the photocopier), I knew that people would immediately begin talking about gun control.
Don’t get me wrong; I am all for gun registries, and in fact, I am pleased that-- if nothing else-- Friday’s horrific tragedy has caused many to revisit the gun control debate with renewed vigour. But I am sad and more than
In the midst of a million Facebook memes about guns, I was pleased to see the Huffington Post republish the article quoted above, by Liza Long, about mental illness, and the limited support for families with mentally ill children.
I was also inspired by reading – so soon after news of the killings broke -- the names of the children and teachers who died. Many individuals had posted this list on their Facebook pages, in response to a challenge to forget the gunman’s name, and instead remember the name of at least one of the victims and/or heroes in the massacre. Calls to end media glorification of such crimes have begun to surface alongside the emergent discussion about at-risk children and the already-widely-publically-discussed need for gun control laws.
It is the need for a conversation about the proverbial village that raises the child, however, that I would like to focus on in this blog post, and in particular, a need to understand the pivotal role which the collective "school" in this village plays.
Although I’ve been trained as an educator to see labels like "autism" and "aspergers" more as Special Education categories describing specific learning needs, rather than a mental illness, there is no question in my mind that raising up society’s future heroes and criminal superstars, be they mentally ill, or in need of Special Education, or just "normal" students, begins in elementary school classrooms like mine.
It’s true: Ted Bundy, James Holmes, Paul Bernardo and even Adam Lanza were all students in someone’s Kindergarten class once. They played at the water table with other children, experimented with writing at the writing centre, built tall, tall towers out of blocks.... Over their subsequent elementary school careers, each of them wrote spelling tests, sat in a guided reading group with teacher and peers, participated in class photos, pizza lunches, recess games… And I bet if you ask any teacher, he could tell you which of the kids he’s taught is most likely to end up in the paper next to similarly horrific headlines as those screaming at us from every major news outlet across the western world over the past three days. We know who they are. And we want to help them.
Sometimes we succeed. Too often, apparently, we fail.
A monograph I am currently reading, on student identity and engagement, invites us to consider each student in our class as a “whole person”, and to “know every student in more dimensions than just the academic” (page 1). Imagine taking the time to really get to know each child -- even the "difficult" or "challenging" ones in a more holistic way, and ensuring their voices are included in the social fabric of the classroom
The piece quotes research by Rudduck and Macintyre (2007):
While the exclusion of identity and voice from classroom learning and school experiences can lead to student disengagement and behavioural issues (such as defiance, silence and poor attendance), paying attention to them can be transformative for students (page 2)
Another Ministry of Education monograph, on resilience, points out that teachers are in a unique position to help children “manage difficult episodes or chronic challenges in their lives”. The research highlights a positive correlation between so-called “protective factors” (things like a safe and engaging learning environment for all types of learners in the classroom, for example, or regular interaction with a caring adult, and high expectations regarding performance and behaviour), and positive outcomes for students.
The research has clearly shown that children are naturally resilient, possess innately powerful minds, and harbour a natural curiosity. When I read comments like the one I read recently about the shooter in the Connecticut tragedy, namely, that he was “a deeply disturbed boy”, I am troubled.
From the afore-mentioned monograph on resilience again,
“Changing the life trajectories of children and youth from risk to resilience starts with changing the beliefs of the adults in their families, schools and communities…. Both ones environment of development and ones personal and cultural elements are critically important.” (page 2).
A superficial Google search about the positive long-term effects of early intervention with children who have been identified as exhibiting sociopathic tendencies suggests that we can make a difference for the Adam Lanzas of the world. The monograph on resilience outlines 7 strategies for creating such environments, and the afore-mentioned work on student identity suggests that schools can early on begin to “build a bridge of relevance” for each student. (page 2)
As many educational researchers and sociologists
have pointed out, “when we know each student well,
we are in a position to affirm the very best we see in them”.
But building the trusting relationships with students that sucha a "knowledge" of them requires, and which so many of our at-risk children and youth so desperately need takes time, mental energy, resources. I myself have 21 students on my Grade 3 Class roster this year. 18 of them are stage 1 or 2 ESL, and at least 8 of them are challenged by additional special education needs (although some of the latter are still awaiting diagnosis and “official” support). I would estimate 80% are living in what most readers of this blog would consider poverty.
When a tragedy like a mass murder strikes, gun control and conversations about school security are absolutely part of the solution, but – in my opinion--if we are to truly address the more serious infection which the US’s latest high-profile gun crime is merely a symptom of, we must be willing to look beyond the politically sexy quick-fix bandaids, and engage more deeply with the facts. If we (teachers) have failed in our endeavors to save the world, it is not our failure alone to mourn. The school is only one, vulnerable, precariously-stitched square on the fabric of society's quilt. Although we (teachers) certainly have the potential to save the world, it is the policies and people surrounding education who empower us (or don't).
It is time to talk about teachers. It is time to talk about our role, and how YOU, Joe Public, can support us as we help to raise up the children who will become tomorrow’s politicians, taxpayers and voters, scientists, musicians, sports superstars, and…. Killers.